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New disease fund revives debate over aid to Myanmar

Written by: Staff
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BANGKOK, July 23 (Reuters) Foreign donors alarmed at the spread of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Myanmar are working on a new 100 million dollars fund to replace aid pulled last year over restrictions imposed by the military junta.

The ''3-Diseases Fund'' aims to plug the gap left by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which quit the former Burma last August, citing curbs on their activities which have since forced other aid groups to leave.

The fund, backed mainly by European donors and still being finalised, will renew a debate over whether aid groups can work effectively in a country led by one of the world's most secretive and repressive regimes.

''We hope governments can find a way to make this fund work, but we fear good intentions will be undermined by facts on the ground,'' said Mark Farmaner, spokesman for the Burma Campaign UK, which says aid must go ''hand-in-glove'' with a political strategy.

''This regime is not interested in the welfare of its own people and sees aid as a potential source of income,'' he said.

Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, is largely spurned by the international community due to its human rights record and detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

It receives far less foreign aid -- about 2.50 dollars per capita -- than regional neighbours Cambodia (), Vietnam () and Laos (), and below the 14 dollars average for low-income nations.

Coupled with the junta's paltry spending on health care -- about three per cent of the national budget compared to 40 per cent for the military -- Myanmar's 50 million people face some of the highest rates of deadly diseases in Asia.

Malaria, the biggest killer of children under five, claims 3,000 lives each year and drug resistant strains are spreading beyond Myanmar's borders.

Tuberculosis causes over 12,000 deaths a year but more worrying is the rapid growth of drug resistant TB blamed on poor medical services and sub-standard drugs.

An estimated 360,000 people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and despite expanded prevention and care in recent years, UNAIDS says much more needs to be done.

MORE REUTERS KR BST1119

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